Pick any day and there's bound to be a student tour snaking its way through the hallways and corridors of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation of Ardmore, Oklahoma (www.noble.org), the largest independent, non-profit agricultural research institute in the U.S.
On a perfectly normal tour last spring, a 5th grader made a revealing statement. When learning that hamburger meat originated from cows, the young man balked and said, "I would never get my meat from a cow. I'd just buy it from the grocery store."
The story would be funny if it wasn't becoming commonplace. The reality is that many people, especially our youth, are detached from agriculture. They just don't know where their food comes from and it is troubling. And, as they become tomorrow’s leaders, decision makers and policy makers, this condition becomes dangerous.
At the turn of the last century, about 40 percent of the U.S. labor force was associated with farming or ranching. Then came the Industrial Revolution followed by a Green Revolution and the modernization of agricultural practices. Today, less than 2 percent of the U.S. workforce plows a field or raises animals.
A reduced need for agricultural producers gave people the opportunity for other pursuits. Steadily, with each passing generation, cities grew and rural life shrank. It is simply accepted that this transition away from fundamental rural knowledge has caused a gulf between producers and consumers. Regrettably, now the food that arrives on the dinner table is not linked to the endless stream of effort necessary to produce it.
Change is needed.Education has been a cornerstone of the Noble Foundation since its inception. Our founder, Lloyd Noble, established his foundation in the post-Dust Bowl era to educate farmers and ranchers on methodologies for safeguarding the soil to prevent future calamity.
The Noble Foundation has historically offered summer internships to undergraduates as well as a number of small, disjointed youth educational programs. In the fall of 2012, we centralized outreach and educational activities around the goal of delivering agriculture- and science-based education for all students, from elementary through college. Noble Academy was born.
The purpose of Noble Academy is straightforward: improve such audience’s knowledge of agriculture and its importance to society; share the need for research to advance agriculture; and communicate the range of career opportunities in agriculture and agriculture-related research.
We started small—we went into the science classrooms of a handful of community middle school classrooms. Interestingly, middle school is the time when students often decide that science could be the basis of a career or, alternatively, that they no longer have an interest. We want to contribute to that decision process through the use of hands-on experiments and demonstrations that convey the role of soil, water, plants and animals, connect these dots to their food supply and make this conversation relevant.
There is a wealth of science curriculum out there; what makes Noble Academy’s different? The science is the science, but what is delivered is a function of our relationships and audiences—education is not one-size fits all.
Relationships are the cornerstone of everything we do; we establish relationships with our partner-schools and our partner-teachers. We learn and conform our educational units to state science standards. Moreover, we learn what is being taught in our partner-classrooms, and we work with these teachers to integrate a soil, water, plant or animal-based experiment into their in-class curriculum. We do it together.
We have found that a good idea spreads quickly. Through new relationships, Noble Academy is extending our influence through important teach-the-teacher events where we provide instructional support so that more teachers become comfortable and serve as users of these tools. With our partners, Ag in the Classroom, Oklahoma FFA, the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics and the Oklahoma Department of Education, our messages has the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of students annually.
We have all heard it: knowledge is power. Through a little effort and by building a lot of relationships, we are working to give today’s youth the knowledge they need to be tomorrow’s contributors and learned decision makers.
We seek to make a difference, and our founder would not have had it any other way.
Steve Rhines is vice president, general counsel and director of public affairs of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. To learn more about the Noble Academy, visit www.noble.org/noble-academy.